Grumpy Young Wikis and the attention economy

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Further to our look at the video response on YouTube, there’s some interesting hard data around now about the kind of people who contribute to online outlets like Wikipedia and YouTube and what motivates them. Via Rough Type: Nicholas Carr’s Blog, I found this New Scientist report about an article in the journal Cyber Psychology and Behaviour: Personality Characteristics of Wikipedia Members (links to a PDF of the original article).

The conclusion seems to be that Wikipedia contributors tend to be introverted and motivated not by altruism but by – perhaps – a need to put everybody straight. This may not be much of a surprise to those of us who don’t feel moved to contribute to Wikipedia, but think about the implications: how many of you use Wikipedia for research, and how far is your knowledge about the world and its ways skewed by the point of view of grumpy and “disagreeable” people. By “disagreeable” I think we mean the kind of people who tend to disagree with others – a lot. From the article:

It may be that the prosocial behavior apparent in Wikipedia is primarily connected to egocentric motives, such as personal expression, raising self-confidence, and group identification, motives
which are not associated with high levels of agreeableness. Another interesting result was the significant difference found between Wikipedia members and non-Wikipedia members in the openness trait. Again, this may reflect the fact that contributing to Wikpedia serves mainly egocentric motives.

All of this tallies with another piece of academic research – sponsored by HP – on what motivates people to upload videos to YouTube and the like. It’s not about “sharing”, although that word is bandied around a lot by the web sites concerned: “Share This” etc. It’s about (big surprise) attention-seeking. And if the attention is not found, people tend to abandon the service.

I found a similar thing on Flickr. Once I weaned myself off the need to generate “views” of my photostream by leaving comments on the photos of others, I started to use Flickr as a place to back up and store my best photos, should I have a computer failure, fire, what have you. And nobody cares. Very few people bother you if all you want to do is create a backup set of your iPhoto albums. Once you yourself stop responding to the people who post bland comments like, “Great shot,” the number of people viewing your photos drops through the floor.

The comment section on blogs, then, can be seen less about “conversation and “debate” and more to do with affirmation of your effort. The payment for your labour is attention. Which is about right. Online advertising is sold by means of the concept of the “eyeballs” which will see that ad in that location. It’s an attention economy:

[T]here is ample evidence that while the ratio of contributions to downloads is indeed small, the growth in content provision persists at levels that are hard to understand if analyzed from a public goods point of view. One possible explanation for this puzzling behavior, which we explore in this paper, is that those contributing to the digital commons perceive it as a private good, in which payment for their efforts is in the form of the attention that their content gathers in the form of media downloads or news clicked on. As it has been shown, attention is such a valued resource that people are often willing to forsake financial gain to obtain it

You can read the full article here.

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